Side A: Hounds of Love
The album kicks off with the danceable “Running Up That Hill” which explores the depth of human desire for things that can never be, something any human can sing along to with passion. The energy of the synth line on this track is one of the most memorable of 80’s pop, and the song rightfully became a feminist anthem about the invisible walls that separate the male and female experience. Bush asserts that if those barriers could be torn down by walking in each other’s shoes society would be better as a whole, but with the forlorn tone that it may never be possible. The bridge crescendo into the climactic exclamation “Let’s exchange the experience” is mind-blowing. We’re handed the title track after that, built around a woman being confronted with someone that wants to love her, feeling the hesitation, the raging passion, and the fear of something going wrong all at once. The song attacks this sensation with pounding drums and astral synthesizers, and the metaphor of the feeling of a pack of hounds running out from the trees to swarm her, inducing that same notion of uncertainty and anticipation. The track ends off with the climax of the woman throwing her shoes into the lake, as if to throw caution to the wind and allow herself to be wrapped up in the moment. It’s a beautiful sentiment that really draws the themes of Side A together of loneliness, desperation, longing, and the throes of passion when that longing is finally satisfied.
“The impeccable melding of Bush‘s angelic vocal and beautifully arranged chamber instrumentation paint a picture of heartbreak, burning desire, and hauntingly surreal panoramas.“
The song also segues perfectly into the funk pop of “The Big Sky,” with this thick prominent bass line and strangely alluring choral vocals. It’s the most soulful the album gets, with rolling drums, bright acoustic guitar, and an uplifting chorus. The song hits its peak as Kate’s vocals get even more passionate, bursting with playful ad-libs like “ha-ha” to build even more tension before ringing in some beautiful gospel-inspired backing choir with an empowering “tell ’em sisters.” The song’s spirit is unwaveringly gospel, but it’s elevated to levels that reach the proverbial “big sky” themselves, even working in a hard rock-derived electric guitar melody in the second half. After this grandiose rhapsody, we cool things down with the eeriest track on the first side “Mother Stands For Comfort.” The song’s about a mother who knows her son has murdered someone, but out of her intense love for him helps him cover it up and consoles him. It’s not only an absurdly captivating song topic, but the ominous glass-breaking and the minimal, airy instrumental masterfully drives home the bipolar temperature of the conflicted track.
Then we get my favorite song on the album, and easily a top 5 all-time favorite, “Cloudbusting.” What can I even say about this track? It follows a very real story about the fringe psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who would often spend time with his son Peter building inventions on the family farm. One of which Reich called a “Cloudbuster,” that he claimed could control the weather. Reich was mistaken for a communist of the same name amidst the turmoils of World War II, and was unjustly arrested and taken away in front of his own son. He wrote his last letter to Peter saying he was excited for his release before dying of psoriasis complications in prison. The two never got to see each other again, and the way this song’s confrontational cellos and cinematic fairlight synths,helmed by Bush herself, approach the horrors that befell these two men is to this day one of the most tear-jerking musical moments ever.
The track starts out slow with that fantastic foundational cello progression, and, told from the son’s point of view, regales us with the story as a distant memory. It begins rife with descriptions of Peter’s deep connection with his father, as well as the heartbreaking sadness with which Peter relives the painful past: “I wake up crying…” The chorus here is stunning, and the way Bush vocalizes it just makes everything that much more cathartic and gut-wrenching, especially with that passionate rasp on “But just SAYING it could even make it happen.” The second verse describes the terrors of Peter having his father ripped from him by the government never to be seen again, and the next chorus builds into this massive spectacle of strings and synths to lead the track out in glorious, miserable fashion. The deluded optimism of the teary-eyed vocals is the most illuminating yet agonizing moment of the entire album.
Side B: The Ninth Wave
As anyone who’s reading this review should know now, this masterpiece is split into two “sub-albums,” and the latter is far more harrowing and experimental. Side B is about a woman being stranded at sea after a shipwreck with nothing but a lifejacket, slowly being fatigued and ultimately strangled by the frigid waters. It kicks off with the false security of “And Dream of Sheep,” a peaceful lullaby about being exhausted to the bone. Our personage wants desperately to sleep, though knowing it will kill her, and simultaneously fears what hallucinations she may experience if she stays awake. But just as wistful as the sound of the first track is, we’re instantly met with the dissonant, foggy cellos of “Under Ice” which details the woman’s fever dream of skating on ice alone at night. The speaker notices something moving under the ice, before coming to a horrifying realization and chanting repeatedly with a gradual crescendo on each exclamation “it’s me”(the character herself), before letting out a terrified, piercing final scream as the music fades out.
What happens next is easily one of the, if not the, weirdest, most discomforting songs to ever land on a pop album with “Waking the Witch.” It’s another of the drowning woman’s hallucinations, with numerous vocal samples speaking different iterations of “wake up” as if her brain is instinctively telling itself to stay alive. It’s followed by an analogy of the woman being pointed to a light, conceptualizing heaven as our character is dying. A key shift stirs the track from its serene, dream-like beginning to a jarring glitchy array of muted guitars and chopped up vocals. The song is overtaken by the contrasting religious imagery of church bells and demonic growls representing heaven and hell, which are matched by Bush’s terrifying vibrato and nightmarish chants. Screeching, moaning guitars and jeers of “GUILTY” end the track out, as through the illusion the woman hears distant rescue helicopters coming to save her.
After the crazed hysteria, “Watching You Without Me” provides some much needed relief with soft mallets, steady drums and subdued vocals. The track itself sounds distressingly patient, like the ticking of a clock. It perfectly contextualizes the story told of the character’s family waiting for her to get home before beginning to realize something must have gone horribly wrong. The woman envisions herself as a spirit, should she die of hypothermia, in the room with them but, frustrated and lachrymose, unable to interact with her loved ones. The glitched up vocals lost in translation illustrate this remarkably, as she desperately and hopelessly tries to talk to her family. Then we get the Irish folk-influenced “Jig of Life,” which finds the character, still freezing and running out of oxygen, now being confronted by a future version of herself who spurs her on to not deny herself her possible future by falling asleep and dying. The song itself is triumphant and empowering, and the fiddle melody is stellar, even dance-worthy. The woman finds herself inspired to live by these conjured up potential future memories, which work has compelling motivational voices to keep her fighting.
Then with “Hello Earth,” just like the actual sensation of freezing/drowning to death, a million screams and sensations are shut out for silence. This song aurally describes the moment of death for the character, while rescuers and her own subconscious(The aforementioned “murderer of calm”) try to stir her awake. As she loses consciousness and faces the void, she is suddenly able to truly see the world. She sees the people of Earth, and calls to them to try and save them, perhaps as a parallel to divine intervention. Gregorian hymns course through the backing like a funeral procession. A symbolic sample is employed of communication between NASA and the spaceship Columbia. As the song progresses, the lyrics and the sound describe her floating further and further, as Earth grows smaller and smaller before disappearing to her eye, only to be greeted with new life in the album’s closer. In stark contrast to the mournful vacuum of its predecessor, “The Morning Fog” rings in a new age, as the character is reborn into life by resuscitation from the medics on the rescue boat. Serene keys and pastoral strings prance through the backing as the speaker describes a newfound appreciation for life: “Being born again/Into the sweet morning fog/D’you know what? I love you better now.” She rejoices and kisses the floor, overcome with only the intense desire to go home and tell her family she loves them.
So at its end, Hounds of Love positions itself as a uniquely powerful, surreal, and life-changing experience through its wide range of cogent sounds and themes, and its flawless execution of complimenting the two. It’s an album everyone can get something out of, and an album the right person can get everything out of. Tales of heartbreak, love, life, death, loneliness, longing, fear, desperation, anxiety, passion and above all life flow through this album like blood. The total amalgamation is an all-encompassing outlook(as well as inward look) of this massive space we call the universe and beyond it. You will cry, you will be blanketed in comfort, and you will be terrified, in awe of the unimaginable powers of the universe, and of life and death, and that is the conviction this album drives home. A true masterpiece from one of the greatest, most uniquely gifted individuals to ever grace the world of art.